Today’s tea was a gift from a tea factory I visited in Shao Xing (绍兴), Zhejiang province, somewhat near Hangzhou. We had traveled to the factory to learn more about the production of Zhu Cha (珠茶), more commonly known in the West as Gunpowder green tea. Zhu Cha is often considered a lower-quality style of Chinese tea, since its production is almost entirely by machine (a rarity in China), but one thing this visit taught me is that even such “low quality” tea has quite a pedigree.
Most tea in China is picked by hand, usually early in the morning at high elevations. Zhu Cha is picked by a machine that looks something like a lawn mower, but is held up in the air over a row of tea bushes with a handler on either side. The tea leaves are sheared off into a collection bag on the back. For this reason you can always identify machine-harvested tea gardens by their immaculate rows of bushes. It’s worth noting that this style of harvesting is the norm in Japan, but that’s quite another post.
The leaves are then processed through a series of machines. First they are heated in a drum drier to fix the leaf (this is what makes it a green tea).Then they are withered and rolled and heated in a series of steps to create the tiny pearls that give the tea its name.
After our tour of the factory and gardens, we learned that from these gardens, there’s still a range of grades. Ping Shui Ri Zhu (平水日铸 – Ping Shui is the region), the tea we received, is apparently the highest grade of tea produced in that area. Ri Zhu tea is made earlier in the season than Zhu Cha (before April 20) at the same time as the local Long Jing, but the leaves are smaller and the processing is more akin to Zhu Cha.
The leaves are dark green and rolled small, although not quite as small as Zhu Cha. The liquor is a pale gold and the taste is surprisingly sweet with a delicate vegetal quality. The aftertaste reminds me of a Sencha, actually, although its production is pretty far from that and there’s no corresponding aroma to make me think of Japan. In fact, there’s very little aroma at all.
Energizing and quick, this full-bodied tea doesn’t have a lot of nuance, but is delicious to drink, especially on this sunny spring morning.